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'Newsies the Musical': Director Kenny Ortega on How He Cast Christian Bale

Newsies the Musical isn’t even on Broadway yet, but it’s already the talk of the town. How did a 1992 Disney flop become a phenomenon? In a Daily Beast exclusive, Ramin Setoodeh asked the fans, the film’s director, Kenny Ortega, and one of the original Newsies why it’s still a triumph. 

T. Charles Erickson / Paper Mill Playhouse

For the last three weeks, the train station in Millburn, N.J., has bustled with a kind of giddy energy from Manhattanites around dinnertime, but these visitors aren’t here for food. A giant white banner in the center of town reveals the real reason: Newsies. Disney’s musical adaptation of the 1992 film about singing newspaper boys has been one of the biggest surprises of the fall theater season, and it’s not even on Broadway—yet.

Like Trekkies, these groupies call themselves “Fansies,” except the object of their obsession is a more obscure piece of pop art. “I saw the movie in the theater like 12 times,” says Heather Allen, 32, an accountant, who admits she drove 20 miles to see the show. “When I was little, we would have sleepovers and listen to the tape over and over again, and write down the songs. I was a bit of a nerd.”

Her friend, Tabitha Falcone, 32, puts it more succinctly: “It was our generation’s Grease.”

Perhaps … except without the box-office success, critical backing, or sequel. Newsies was conceived in Disney’s heyday of live-action films, alongside such titles as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Mighty Ducks, and (my personal favorite) Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, about a blind girl who water dives on a horse as a part of a circus act. The plot for Newsies seemed childproof, too: based on the real-life newsboys' strike of 1899, it followed a group of street hustlers (led by a young, hunky Christian Bale) who take on newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) when he tries to raise the price of papers on them. Kenny Ortega directed the film, years before he went on to strike the tween jackpot with High School Musical.

Back in 1992, Disney aggressively pushed Newsies, and yet few kids ever made it to the picture. It was one of the studio’s biggest flops of all time, earning only $3 million from a $15 million budget. “I think what went wrong,” Ortega says on a recent afternoon, “is that it was the beginning of us trying to get musicals back in the world. It wasn’t recognizable. It was a difficult film to market. I don’t think the Disney guys had their arms around it.” Yet over time, Newsies developed a fierce cult following from kids who watched it again and again on VHS and then DVD, hypnotized by the elaborate choreography and catchy show tunes (it currently has 66,804 fans on Facebook, and was part of this very entertaining Lady Gaga mashup on YouTube). “What I’ve been hearing,” Ortega says, “is that high schools have been putting on the musical for years, without a script, without permission, and Disney realized there’s still interest in the project.”

And so came the stage production, which closed on Sunday and was only supposed to have a limited run. The original idea was for Disney to license out the script to schools and make a profit from the songs. But Newsies exceeded expectations again, and the stage musical became a phenomenon of its own. After a handful of positive reviews, the entire run of the 1,200-seat Paper Mill Playhouse sold out, and the Fansies came out in full force. Jeff Calhoun, the musical’s director, says they also caused a big spike in concessions by snatching up Newsies satchels and newsboy hats (full disclosure: I may have contributed to that, since I spent $70 on a Newsies DVD, CD, mug and refrigerator magnet). Now Disney’s theatrical arm is mulling over the prospect of opening Newsies on Broadway, perhaps as early as next spring.

If that happens, it will finally give Newsies some mainstream credibility. Both on stage and onscreen, what makes Newsies so infectious is its lively soundtrack and David-vs.-Goliath story. Ortega compares it to an American version of Oliver—and Calhoun says it’s Annie, but with boys. But for many of the kids who watched Newsies growing up, what was so appealing was the way in which the movie empowered its young protagonists. The hero Jack “Cowboy” Kelly (played by Bale in the film) is a rascal and orphan, and a dreamer. “Santa Fe, are you there,” he belts in one of the showstoppers, an ode to moving out West. Despite his young age and financial disadvantage, he still manages to organize a newspaper strike that brings Joseph Pulitzer to his knees. (Most of the details in Newsies are completely fictional, but none of the tweens I interviewed seemed to care.)

“I saw it when I was 7 or 8,” says Jeremy Jordan, who played Jack on stage. “I loved it. I think it was a combination of the music and the fact that it was the first live-action Disney movie I saw with boys, and boys being cool and being able to stand up for themselves. As a little kid growing up with a bunch of Disney movies about princesses and talking animals, this was something I could connect with.”

Arvie Lowe Jr., who played the Newsie character Boots in the film, thinks it was “ahead of its time,” since audiences were allergic to musicals until Moulin Rouge and Chicago—and Glee—made them cool again. “Even though it did not hit at the box office, the elements were still there: hot guys, hot dancing, dope choreography,” he says. He was 12 when he took the role, and he remembers long rehearsals, and the crowded set made to look like historic New York packed with extras. One day he even got lost in the crowd. “Kenny was looking for me on the bullhorn,” Lowe says. For the big finale, “that’s not CGI—that’s a shitload of people.”

Bale had no experience in musical theater when he was cast as Jack Kelly. Ortega had to convince him to take the part, after seeing him in Empire of the Sun: “At 16, he was about choices and participating in the choices that he and his father were making in his career,” Ortega says. “It took some confidence building. He was not a singer, not a dancer. We had workshops and classes and he worked himself to the bone. He got in there and wasn’t afraid of falling on his face.”

As much as the Newsies fans love Bale’s performance, they are miffed at him for distancing himself from the movie. One fan even wrote the Batman actor an open letter about how he was depressing her after a string of negative interviews about Newsies. He cringed in 2010 when Esquire asked him about being a child actor, and he told Entertainment Weekly in 2007, “At 17, you want to be taken seriously—you don’t want to be doing a musical ... Time heals those wounds. But it took a while.”

“I’m not upset with him for that comment,” Lowe says. “Of his body of work that’s current, I would understand him for saying something like that. But I don’t think American Psycho broke records either.” Lowe says that all the Newsies stay in touch on Facebook—the only contact he’s had with Bale is when the Oscar winner added him as a friend. “I tried to hit him up with a message, but he never replied,” Lowe says. “That’s my Christian Bale story. I hear he’s temperamental like that nowadays.” Ortega is more forgiving: “He was a real leader and a tremendous amount of fun. I would hope he wasn’t in any way embarrassed for being part of it.”

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Back on stage, on a recent night in New Jersey, the Newsies musical had a capacity crowd under its spell. (Another disclosure: there were moments, reader, where I could not stop singing along.) The stage director is proud of what he’s accomplished, even though he’s never seen the movie. “I have seen the first 12 minutes,” Calhoun says. “I got worried. I didn’t want to be inadvertently stealing Kenny’s stuff.” Still, it’s a faithful adaption from the actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein. The biggest departure is an introduction of a new character—a female reporter—that serves as Jack’s love interest, and gives the end an additional zip of happily-ever-after.

It feels a little odd that Newsies is making a comeback now, when newspapers and paper boys are a dying breed. But perhaps it’s even more fitting when you consider that its theme—the poor beaten-down class fighting against its greedy owners—feels particularly timely against a backdrop of rebellion. “It’s about people feeling like they have no voice, overrun by corporate America and rich men,” says Mark S. Hoebee, the artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse. “It’s the larger message that transcends the specifics of the newspaper game.” Which leaves us with one question: how long before Occupy Wall Street: The Musical?